Cullen in for crunch clash

CHRISTIAN CULLEN will make his first appearance for Munster for over a year tonight, when he lines out at full-back for the crucial Celtic League game against Border Reivers at Netherdale (7.30).

Munster fans, mindful of the upcoming Heineken Cup final against Biarritz, will be hoping the injury-prone full back can successfully come through his first serious game and perhaps lighten the team’s current injury load.

With such a critical game following Munster’s historic win over Leinster last weekend, coach Declan Kidney has had to carefully manage his squad.

Cullen’s timely return gives Kidney an opportunity to give a well-earned break to Shaun Payne, but the coach had to wrestle with the need to give Peter Stringer, Paul O’Connell, Denis Leamy and Tomas O’Leary time to recuperate from recent injuries. None of that group travelled with the squad to Scotland yesterday.

In addition, Ronan O’Gara, Jerry Flannery and John Hayes have been given a break by being named in the reserves. It was not, insisted Kidney, an affront to Borders by making eight changes from the side that beat Leinster last weekend; just a reaction to the necessity he faced.

The coach is looking forward to Cullen’s return and yesterday called the New Zealander a model professional.

“He has had to go down a long hard road, but faced it and dealt with it brilliantly. He hasn’t left a stone unturned in his bid to get back to full fitness and get right back into the squad.

"We have been looking to give him his opportunity, and now he has got it. He is looking forward to the challenge as much as we are to have been able to give it to him.”

In the overall context, Kidney is well aware that Borders will pose a serious challenge; they did so already in the Celtic League opener at Thomond Park, when Munster struggled to win 9-7.

“They’re a lot better side, more experienced, than they were last year, and they’re now challenging for one of the two Scottish spots in the Heineken Cup next year. That has to be a plus for them, and Leinster didn’t find it easy a couple of weeks ago.

“With (Gregor) Townsend at ten, they can direct the flow of the game. They have a huge amount to play for, and it’s a huge game for us to play for; the fact that we’re away from home, and the fact that we have only had a five-day turnaround from one big game to another,” he said.

But if Borders are fighting for Heineken Cup recognition, Kidney is well aware of the importance of this game to Munster. After leading the field for so long, Munster now find themselves in fourth place, and in third place in the Irish pecking order for Heineken Cup seeding next year.

“We know that if we don’t win this game, we’re in trouble when the rankings are made for next season. Already, we’re looking for somebody to do us a bit of a favour; now we have to help ourselves by winning this to make sure we continue our challenge right through to the end of the league.

"We certainly don’t want to have to rely on a second favour from any of the other teams, when we haven’t even got the first yet.

“We’re not in this league to finish second, third or fourth, but we are where we are, and it’s up to us now to make sure that we don’t have to rely on other results to sort out where we finish,” he said.

Reivers Coach Steve Bates declared: “It doesn’t get much tougher than this, taking on a side that has just knocked the stuffing out of a team that beat us a couple of weeks ago and thereby qualified for their third Heineken Cup final.

“Munster really are a fantastic side; tough, uncompromising, and they really haven’t been given the credit for what they can achieve out wide either. They’re just a quality all-round side, and we have to get to grips with that,” he said.

Reivers number eight Kelly Brown added: “For anyone who watched the semi-final last weekend, you will appreciate what a massive test this is for us.”

However, he warned Munster that his team would take no notice of status.

“It’s a home game for us, a game to be won. We relish challenges like this and we have our own valid reasons for wanting to win,” he said.

But Brown conceded Reivers have not had the support they desire. “We have struggled to bring in the crowds, and it was an eye-opener to see how many went out to support Munster last weekend,” he said.

MUNSTER: C. Cullen, A. Horgan, M. Mullins, T. Halstead, I. Dowling, J. Manning, M. Prendergast, F. Roche, D. Fogarty, F. Pucciariello, D. O’Callaghan, M. O’Driscoll, S. Keogh, A. Foley (captain), D. Wallace. Replacements: J. Hayes, J. Flannery, T. Hogan, J. O’Sullivan, F. Murphy, R. O’Gara, P. Devlin.

BORDER REIVERS: S. Moffat, S. Danielli, B. MacDougall, C. MacRae, N. Walker, G. Townsend, B. McKerchar, T. McGee, S. Scott, B Douglas (captain), O Palepoi, S. MacLeod, J. Dalziel, K. Brown, S. Gray.

Replacements (from): W Kay, P Thomson, C Stewart, S Sititi, J Weston , A Miller, J King, L Kibble.

Referee. T. Hayes (Wales).

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